House and Senate Cut Plutonium Production Funding, Imperiling NASA Space Science Mission Plans

House and Senate Cut Plutonium Production Funding, Imperiling NASA Space Science Mission Plans

The House and Senate have cut the funding requested by the Department of Energy (DOE) to restart production of plutonium-238 (Pu-238) that is needed to power some NASA space science and lunar exploration spacecraft.

Pu-238 is needed to fuel radioisotope power sources (RPSs) that supply power for systems and instruments on spacecraft that cannot rely on solar energy because they travel too far from the Sun or land on surfaces with long “nights” or other characteristics that make solar energy a poor or impossible choice. Under the Atomic Energy Act of 1954, only DOE is allowed to possess, use and produce nuclear materials and facilities. Thus, NASA must rely on DOE to produce these power sources and the fuel.

The National Research Council (NRC) issued a report on Pu-238 production for NASA missions in May 2009. It urged the government to restart Pu-238 production immediately or imperil NASA’s lunar and planetary exploration plans. The NRC report emphasized that “the day of reckoning has arrived” and immediate action is required, estimating that it would cost at least $150 million to reestablish production.

Previous proposals to make this investment have not been enacted, and cost seems to be the major impediment. However, regardless of why these proposals have been rejected, the day of reckoning has arrived. NASA is already making mission limiting decisions based on the short supply of 238Pu. NASA is stretching out the pace of RPS-powered missions by eliminating RPSs as an option for some missions and delaying other missions that require RPSs until more 238Pu becomes available.”

Pu-238 does not occur in nature, and the United States has not produced any since the late 1980s. It purchased Pu-238 for NASA missions from Russia during the 1990s, but those supplies reportedly are now exhausted. The NRC based its estimate of NASA’s Pu-238 requirements on a letter NASA sent to DOE on April 29, 2008 detailing space science and lunar exploration missions planned for the next 20 years.

The day the NRC report was released, DOE announced that it was requesting $30 million in FY2010 to implement that recommendation.

However, the House cut that to $10 million when it passed the FY2010 Energy and Water appropriations bill (H.R. 3183) on July 17. The Senate went even further (S. 1436), zeroing the request.

In its report on the bill (H. Rept. 111- 203), the House Appropriations Committee complained that DOE had not explained how it would use the funds.

“While the Committee supports the re-start of Pu-238 for space missions and national security user applications, the Department has not provided a clear plan for how the $30,000,000 request will be utilized. The Committee is also concerned that the Department’s request does not address how major users of Pu-238, like the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, are partnering and contributing to this effort. The Committee recommends $10,000,000 for Pu-238 production start-up and directs the Department to provide its start-up plan, including the role and contribution of users, within 90 days of enactment of this Act.”

The Senate Appropriations Committee report (S. Rept. 111-45) expressed similar reservations.

“The Committee recommends no funding for this program at this time. The Committee understands the importance of this mission and the capability provided to other Federal agencies. However, the Department’s proposed plutonium reprocessing program is poorly defined and lacks an overall mission justification as well as a credible project cost estimate. Sustaining the plutonium mission is a costly but an important responsibility. The Committee expects the Department to work with other Federal agency customers to develop an equitable and appropriate cost sharing strategy to sustain this mission into the future.”

If those decisions are not reversed during conference negotiations, NASA may have to revamp its plans significantly. If funding is not approved in the FY2010 budget, “a delay of one year could force a delay in the New Frontiers 4 schedule, and delay of two years or more could force a delay in the schedule of Discovery 14, the first lunar rover, and subsequent missions,” according to the NRC.

User Comments has the right (but not the obligation) to monitor the comments and to remove any materials it deems inappropriate.  We do not post comments that include links to other websites since we have no control over that content nor can we verify the security of such links.